I was 18 when I learned I was pregnant. It was Spring and I was just two months from finishing my senior year of high school. Ms. B. was born that fall, a few months after I turned 19.
2. How old are your kids now?
Ms. B. is now 11. I just had a second child last year who is now 9 months. (I joke that everyone should have their kids a decade apart. You cannot imagine how helpful 11 year olds can be!)
3. Did you plan to start having children so young or was it a surprise? How did you adjust to the news?
TOTAL surprise pregnancy. I’m sure there are exceptions to every rule, but I’m pretty comfortable saying that anyone who tells you they planned on getting pregnant in high school is either lying, in need of therapy, or both. You hear about high school girls making ‘pregnancy pacts’ – This HAS to be made up, right? Who does that?!
As for adjusting to the news – that was tough. Being pregnant in high school is certainly not how I had ever pictured my future. It probably involved a fair amount of denial. Being so young, my family was still very emotionally invested in how my life turned out and everyone (I mean EVVVVEERRRYONE) had their own opinion on how my pregnancy needed to be ‘handled.’ I’m not afraid to say that I considered all my options. It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that, even at 18, I was mentally and emotionally mature enough to take full responsibility for what I had created. I knew myself enough to know that I could love and take care of that baby the way she needed. Once I made that decision, I just started moving forward and let everyone else’s opinions catch up. It didn’t take them long.
4. In your opinion, what’s the biggest advantage to having children early?
I’m having a hard time committing to an answer for this question. I think as soon as you say something is an advantage for young moms, it implies that it’s a disadvantage or doesn’t even exist for older moms, and I don’t always think that is the case. I guess I can say that labor and delivery was a WHOLE lot easier when I was 19. I practically skipped out of the hospital. The second time around, when I was 29, I wasn’t even minimally functional for at least three weeks after delivery.
5. And what’s been your biggest challenge?
I think I was so young, and my pregnancy was so unexpected, I really struggled early on with feeling like I was a failure or a disappointment. I had a hard time finding pediatricians or nurses who would listen seriously when I was worried about Ms. B’s health, I believe because I was so young. Once I was looking for a babysitter to watch Ms. B. while I was in class. On the phone, I found a woman who said she had an opening and would love to watch Ms. B. When I went to her house to meet her later that afternoon, she took one look at my young face, and my baby in my arms, and refused to let me in. In some ways it pushed me — I worked twice as hard to be the best mom I could be, and twice as hard to be the best student or employee I could be, trying to escape that label. I wanted to be taken seriously as a mom, even though I was a student, and be taken seriously as a student, even though I was a mom. Rational enough. But because everything was calculated towards showing everyone, and myself, that I wasn’t a failure, it was all taken to extremes. I was taking 18 hours a semester so I could still graduate on time and working two jobs so I wouldn’t have to ask my family for financial help. But I refused to let any of it ‘interfere’ with my time with my daughter, because then I thought I wasn’t being a good mom. There was no balance. No flexibility. I pulled frequent all-nighters. The fall Ms. B. turned 4, I went an entire semester sleeping only every other day. During finals week, my body, inevitably, gave out, and I spent two weeks in a fever-induced haze. When I finally recovered, I thought, “That was stupid. Enough is enough.” I dropped some of the classes I had enrolled in for the spring so I was only taking 12 hours, and I quit my second job. I learned to ask for more help. And if I had to let Ms. B. watch “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” for the third (okay, tenth) time that week so I could finish a paper, then that was okay, too. I stopped trying to define myself as ‘not a failure,’ and just accepted that I wasn’t. And, of course, I became a better mom for it.
6. What do you think is the biggest misconception about young moms?
For what it’s worth, my family will be horrified (HORRIFIED!) to learn that I ever felt like a failure. They’ve never been anything but loving and supportive. But all of the negative presumptions that surround teen motherhood can be tough to beat. With teen moms, there is this whole perception that they are this blight which heralds the coming societal apocalypse. That’s crap (Although “Teen Mom 2″ isn’t really helping my case). I think I’ve been pretty successful as a teen mother, and it’s not because I’m a particularly exceptional human being. I’ve had an incredible amount of love and support from my friends and family. Which begs the question: What if we approached our teen mothers not with the attitude of ‘you can’t and you won’t so stop bringing the rest of us down,’ and instead said ‘you can and you will, so lets put our boots on and go to work?’ Or, what if, instead of approaching them as ‘teen mothers’ we just approached them as ‘mothers?’ I can only imagine it would make a huge difference.
7. Did you follow through with your original pre-baby life plans/dreams or did you find your priorities and interests changed after becoming a mom?
Yes and no. I still started college that fall, just as I had planned pre-pregnancy. But within a few days of arriving on campus I changed my major to something that seemed more likely to give me a job upon graduation, which would provide the financial support I needed for my daughter. All of my decisions from that point on were uber-focused upon what was practical and best for Ms. B. I stuck with my major, even when I was hating it and knew I could never do it for a living because I felt I needed to stay focused and get through school for her. On the more positive side, cooking is an interest I picked up only after having a baby. It’s become one of my favorite things to do, and I’m not sure I would have figured that out so soon if I hadn’t had Ms. B. The financial and health benefits aside, I also used it shamelessly to lure people into becoming my friends (including my now-husband). “Yeah, I can’t go to that house party with you. But if you come to me, I’ll cook you dinner….”
8. Looking back, what do you wish you knew at 19 that you know now?
It’s okay to feel a little lost sometimes. Beneficial even. I think most college students spend their early twenties mentally wandering around, figuring out who and what they want to be. You might not have all the answers when you graduate, but you at least took the time to think of the question. I was so focused on staying on the path, doing what I thought was best for Ms. B., that I was afraid to ever allow myself that time to be lost for a little bit and figure out what I wanted, what would make me happy. Instead I kept my head down, stayed laser focused on what I had determined was the ‘right’ path for Ms. B., got my undergraduate degree and then my law degree without really thinking about the whys of it, and was dumped out into the world after the bar exam thinking, “Now what? I’m burned out, I have a pant load of student loans, and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” Dear 19-year-old Shannon, I’m begging you, get lost. It will be good for you. And what is good for you is ultimately good for Ms. B.
9. When it comes to finding other mom friends, what’s your best advice?
I don’t know if its because I started to look older so the age difference wasn’t as obvious, or if I just relaxed and stopped worrying about something that never mattered to begin with, but I really found it was much easier to make other mom friends once Ms. B. started school. Whatever your age, you share a common interest in your children. I still get the occasional “You don’t look old enough to have a fifth grader,” but I just say “I’m not,” and the conversation moves on. I also thinks it helps to know that the age difference feels a lot larger when you’re the one looking forward than when you’re the one looking back.
In all the ways that really matter, a mom is a mom is a mom. When you have your first baby, whether you’re 19, 29, 39 or 49, we’re all swimming in the same sea of cluelessness. Just because that mom over there reached the magical age of 40 before having her baby doesn’t mean she received this gift of babycare knowledge that you haven’t yet. So don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions, don’t sweat the small stuff, and all those other parenting cliches that have become cliches because they’re just so damn true.